Bold ‘Perpetrator’ proves horror can be scary, funny — and meaningful

Bloody thriller, filmed in Chicago, makes some points about women in culture between the laughs and the shocks.

SHARE Bold ‘Perpetrator’ proves horror can be scary, funny — and meaningful
The dangerous new girl in school (Kiah McKirnan) is about to be gifted with eerie powers in “Perpetrator.”

The dangerous new girl in school (Kiah McKirnan) is about to be gifted with eerie powers in “Perpetrator.”

Shudder

There’s blood in the streets, it’s up to my ankles

Blood in the streets, it’s up to my knee

Blood on the streets, the town of Chicago

Blood on the rise, it’s following me… —“Peace Frog,” the Doors

Dark magenta blood is oozing, dripping, spilling, congealing and flowing here, there and everywhere in Jennifer Reeder’s elegantly grotesque and unnerving and wickedly funny and trippy body horror film “Perpetrator,” and I mean that in the best possible way. This is a bold and unique slice of storytelling that serves up some genuine scares and bone-chilling fright moments while pointing a finger at a culture that alternately glorifies, worships and sexualizes young women and revels in stereotyping them and tearing them down.

So much food for thought in this Chicago-filmed production — and that food includes one of the most bizarre and horrific birthday cakes in modern cinema history. Writer-director Reed (who gave us the equally chilling and challenging “Knives and Skin” in 2019) deftly dips into myriad genres and tropes, with nods to films ranging from “Carrie” to “Saw,” “Silence of the Lambs” to “Heathers,” “Cat People” to “American Psycho,” in creating a strange and surreal world with distinct echoes of the horror films of the 1970s and 1980s.

‘Perpetrator’

Untitled

Shudder presents a film written and directed by Jennifer Reeder. Running time: 100 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Thursday at the Music Box Theatre (with Reeder doing a Q&A after the 6:45 p.m. Thursday showing) and streams Sept. 1 on Shudder.

After a terrifying prologue in which high school student Evelyn (Taylor Kinkhead) is snatched off the streets and held captive by a masked monster who informs her that he will be doing awful, awful, terrible things to her (“This is very bad, but it could always get worse”), we meet the troubled and reckless but also clever and sensitive 17-year-old Jonny (Kiah McKirnan), who regularly breaks into homes and steals valuables that she fences in order to pay the rent on the place she shares with her distant and strange father, Gene (played by the versatile and talented Tim Hopper of the Steppenwolf ensemble), who is dealing with some sort of mysterious affliction.

With Jonny about to turn 18, her overwhelmed father sends her off to live with her great aunt Hildie, who is like a villain out of a Disney fable with her long coats and her tightly coiffed hair and her deliberate way of speaking. Alicia Silverstone gives an absolutely captivating and suitably big performance as Hildie, who knows some big changes are coming to Jonny once Jonny reaches that milestone 18th b-day.

Big changes. Huge.

Alicia Silverstone plays the girl’s great aunt, who informs her of her gifts in “Perpetrator.”

Alicia Silverstone plays Kiah McKirnan’s great aunt, who informs her of her gifts in “Perpetrator.”

Shudder

The typical New Girl in School movie is turned upside down and twisted this way and that from the moment Jonny arrives for her first day of class at a snobby, gothic-looking prep school. Jonny is an outcast, but she’s also alluringly dangerous and resourceful; even the snooty kids are drawn to that. She forges alliances with the popular girls, including Casimere Jollette’s self-centered Aviva, while exploring a possible romance with the loner and kindred spirit Elektra (Ireon Roach).

This is one weird-ass high school, from the nurse (Audrey Francis, another great Steppenwolf talent) who has bandages on her face and appears to be about three hours past rhinoplasty (bloody!) as she asks Jonny a series of wildly inappropriate and invasive questions, to the creepy and intense Principal Burke (Christopher Lowell), who takes a perverse delight in conducting school shooter drills and spraying the girls with his water gun, cackling wildly and exclaiming: “You’re dead!” and punishing them for being caught. (Says one “victim” of the drill, “My parents are going to slaughter me for being killed.”)

On Jonny’s 18th birthday, Aunt Hildie bakes her that aforementioned cake and welcomes Jonny (whether Jonny likes it or not) to a family lineage that includes inheriting a kind of shapeshifting power known as the Forevering, which Hildie describes as “possession in reverse.” When a number of teenage girls disappear, Jonny puts that power to use in an effort to find them — and their captor. (Typical of Reeder’s razor-sharp and black humor/social commentary writing, one girl reacts to the disappearances by remarking, “Girls go missing all the time, I mean, what’s the big deal?” while another says, “I can’t eat, which normally would be awesome of course.”)

What happens from there is best left for the viewer to discover. Suffice to say there are times when “Perpetrator” is almost kitschy in its approach — and then leaves us gasping at the claustrophobic terror of it all.

Kiah McKirman is a charismatic screen presence and creates a complex and empathetic and ever-evolving character in Jonny. The supporting ensemble is terrific, with Alicia Silverstone leaving an indelible impression in limited screen time, and writer-director Reeder’s vision is greatly augmented by cinematographer Sevdije Kastrati’s haunting imagery. “Perpetrator” is a surrealistic feast.

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